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Preaching Sermons that Transform Your Hearers

Good preaching/teaching is increasingly difficult to find today. It is difficult not only because it is rare, but also because so few Christians know how to spot it. Ask the average Christian to describe a good sermon and he or she likely will give some of these characteristics:
* An engaging intro
* Good stories about life
* Occasional shouting, but not too much
* Variations on rate and volume of speech
* All the points start with the same letter
* Greek or Hebrew definitions
* An emotional conclusion

No doubt, these characteristics describe engaging communication, but it's important to remember good preaching is far more than good communication. Churches and Christians need a better brand of pulpit. Specifically here, we'll think about two kinds of preaching; both are important, but one is far superior. We will call them propositional preaching and transformational preaching.

Propositional preaching focuses primarily on the communication of facts, ideas and truths. Transformational preaching also focuses on facts, ideas and truths; but it goes much farther by working hard to do more than communicate. Rather than aiming and dispensing Scripture, transformational preaching aims to change the hearers by applying those facts, ideas and truths to their hearts and lives. There is a stark contrast between dispensing the Word and ministering the Word. Dispensing truth merely places a meal on the table. Ministering the truth involves carefully preparing, plating and feeding the guests one nutritious bite at a time.

Consider a simplified example from Philippians 2:14-16 to illustration this difference: "Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain."

Propositional preaching on this passage might sound similar to: "God used Paul to give people an unmistakable command. Don't grumble or argue. No one likes a complainer. It seems as if Christians are some of the worst complainers. According to the text, the worst part is that grumbling and complaining gives the world a bad impression of Christianity. So, stop complaining. Stop it! Paul said we live in a crooked and perverse generation. Unbelievers need to be able to see a difference between us and our culture. If you constantly complain, you will look the same as the world. Paul said we need to prove we are Christians. If you grumble and complain, maybe you're not a Christian. So stop grumbling."

In this highly simplified example, I have highlighted two of the propositional priorities. Among others, propositional preaching emphasizes facts and commands. While facts and commands are certainly important aspects of rightly dividing the Word of God, they are not enough. Facts and commands can inform and direct listeners, but they cannot transform. The apostle Paul taught that knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. In a similar way, preaching sermons that are merely propositional may communicate information about God and the gospel, but does not provide the necessary instruction for lasting biblical change. In fact, the change it is most likely to accomplish is pharisaical change, leading people to become rule-followers rather than Christ-lovers. At the same time, propositional preaching typically includes a high measure of emotion. While emotions are an important part of the Christian life, our natural tendency is to be ruled by our emotions. The common emotionalism of fact- or command-oriented preaching often leads to very little change because listeners tend to get caught up in the emotions of the messenger. Preaching that leads to life transformation is invariably deeper, richer and more helpful.

On the other hand, transformational preaching would approach the passage this way: "God used Paul to give people an unmistakable command. Don't grumble and argue. However, notice the context of this command. Paul's purpose in addressing the habit of complaining is to spur his hearers toward greater Christ-likeness. Christ is the great object of Paul's teaching. He does not merely have contentment in mind, but contentment that springs from the nature of Christ and is expressed for the pleasure of Christ. So how does God replace our natural tendency to grumble with Christ-like humility? Paul's answer is by holding fast to the Word of life. As we dive deeper and deeper into the sovereign and good character of God, His Spirit convicts, humbles and changes us. As a result, we are able to replace the sinful habit of grumbling with the righteous habit of contentment."

The major and important difference between propositional and transformational preaching is the objective. Simply stated above, transformational preaching strives to bring the living Word of God to bear on not just the behavior of the listeners, but on their hearts by unpacking Scripture in a way that teaches, reproves, corrects and trains Christians in righteousness. Preachers and teachers who desire to help Christians grow in Christ must intentionally pursue their own growth in applying Scripture to life. This may be more difficult for those who preach more for evangelism than sanctification. Because unbelievers have no ability to change without first coming to Christ, preaching for conversion does not lend as many opportunities to apply Scripture. Therefore, predominately evangelistic preachers may require additional study and practice to grow in preaching for maturity and genuine soul care. Whatever kind of preaching we are accustomed to, learning to preach transformational, change-oriented sermons is essential to rightly shepherding the flock among us. I am thankful there is an modern and swelling tide of pastors committed to progressive sanctification and transformational preaching, and I pray our momentum builds.

A few thoughts on how to grow in transformational preaching/teaching:
1) Grow in your understanding of the New Testament authors' purpose of writing. For instance, in the passage above, Paul repeatedly said his purpose was maturity, sanctification and shepherding people toward completeness in Christ.
2) Study theologians who were/are noted for wisdom in transformational preaching/teaching (i.e., the Puritans, the Protestant reformers, modern biblical counselors).
3) Rather than viewing the gospel merely as a means to conversion, cultivate for yourself a sharper grasp on the transformative power of God's grand redemptive story. Remind yourself the gospel that saves is the gospel that sanctifies.
4) Practice applying the gospel and biblical principles of change to your own troubles, trials and temptations.
5) Study and practice biblical counseling as a priority in ministry. There is no better preacher than one who is also a counselor. He inevitably has a better grip on his Bible and a keener insight into the lives of his hearers.

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